Right from its opening minutes, Todd Field’s Tár sets out the contours of an acute examination of the question that bedevils our times: can art be separated from the artist? After a short introduction to the music conductor Lydia Tar, tellingly seen through an unidentified person’s secretly shot video, Field rolls out the movie’s entire credits in reverse.
The unusual placement suggests that Field is playing with expectations. Also, that he is demanding – and will receive, for the most part – our patience for a 158-minute dissection of one of the most pressing matters in contemporary culture.
When the film finally gets going, Tár (Cate Blanchett) is seen at the peak of her achievements – a position as the Berlin Philharmonic’s first female conductor, an upcoming book titled Tár on Tár and a recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.5, teaching duties at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. It’s during one of her lectures that Tár, who easily straddles the worlds of classical music and celebrity culture, finds that she is out of step with the one thing she deems essential to her practice – time.
A metronome that ticks away ominously at Tár’s Berlin apartment is one of the more obvious reminders that the hourglass is running out on this kind of genius musician, in her cultural zone and above the accepted norms of behaviour. From angering a student who insists on conflating the works of classical masters with their politics to being accused of abusing her proteges, Tár finds herself a victim of what we now know as ‘cancel culture’.
While some of the horror film-style devices are overly familiar and a bit overcooked, Todd Field’s screenplay neither makes concessions for his complicated protagonist nor allows easy answers to the institutional abuse of power. By making Tár a woman and a lesbian, the film moves beyond gender to focus on the hierarchies that govern relationships in the classical music world and beyond.
The director of In the Bedroom and Little Children brings to Tár the same masterful exactitude, the rigorously calibrated form as well as humanistic curiosity about individuals trapped in an existential crisis. Florian Hoffmeister’s ice-cool, tightly controlled camerawork is apt for the narrative’s largely European setting as well as for a cerebral study of a deeply polarising issue.
As the head of a cast that includes Nina Hoss (as Tár’s wife), Noemie Merlant (as Tár’s assistant) and Sophie Kauer (as a Russian cellist whom Tár favours), Cate Blanchett commands undivided attention. From coming up with a precise body language for her character as well learning to actually conduct an orchestra, Blanchett’s mesmerising performance is in tune with Field’s vision of the new cultural minefields that we must navigate – unfailingly intellectual but filled with feeling too.